Why HTML5 Web Apps Are Going to Rock Your World

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Last week, I went to the Future of Web Apps conference in London. It’s an event that’s primarily targeted at developers, and much of the discussion was focused on newer web technologies and techniques, such as HTML5, CSS3 and geolocation. As a non-developer, what I found most exciting about the conference was that it offered me some insight into how the web apps we use will change as these new technologies become more widely available and developers figure out how to use them.

Small Pieces, Loosely Joined

The presentation that really brought home the potential of these next-generation web technologies for me was by Brad Neuberg, a developer who used to work at Google. Neuberg’s talk had the theme of “Small pieces, loosely joined,” and showed how technologies such as HTML5, CSS3, SVG, Canvas and WebGL can be used together to create stunning applications within the browser. The centerpiece of his presentation was the slide deck. It wasn’t a standard PowerPoint or Keynote presentation, but rather, a jaw-dropping, browser-based, 3-D slide demo, built using the very tools that Neuberg was talking about,. Neuberg could slickly navigate between the various slides in the presentation at will, and many “slides” contained a live demo of the technologies discussed. If you have Safari on Mac OS X Snow Leopard, you can check it out here. (Note: To navigate between the slides, use the arrow keys. You can zoom in and out using the space bar. The 3-D slide demo only works properly in Safari currently, but you can view a video of it in action in this blog post). While these technologies are impressive on their own, Neuberg’s demo showed that the way they can be easily combined in the browser will lead to real innovation in web apps over the next few years.

Ready for Prime Time?

It’s unlikely that we’ll see all of these technologies being used to their fullest potential for a little while yet, because they aren’t yet fully supported by all of the browsers. However, the various browser manufacturers seem to be racing each other to incorporate support as quickly as possible. Even Microsoft, lambasted for its poor support of web standards in previous versions of Internet Explorer, has upped its game with the release of a beta of IE9 that has decent HTML5 and CSS3 support. It won’t be long before many of these technologies are widely available, and developers can start using them in web apps; indeed, Neuberg mentioned that both Firefox 4 and Chrome betas would soon support the technology used in his slide demo.

It’s Not Just the Flashy Stuff

At the moment, many HTML5/CSS3 apps are flashy demos that show off the potential of these technologies, but while Canvas and SVG demos look cool, many of the most useful bits of HTML5 do stuff that’s mainly “under the hood.” For instance, these are tools that do things like enable geolocation. Because some aspects of these technologies are already available in many browsers, we’re starting to see them used in some web apps. Google has already started incorporating some HTML5 features into its web apps, for example, as has Facebook. While Facebook’s and Google’s use of HTML5 isn’t visually impressive like Neuberg’s slide demo, these companies are making their existing apps better by enabling innovative features like geolocation and drag-and-drop.

As technologies like HTML5, CSS3, SVG and WebGL start to become more mainstream, not only will the web apps we already use become more useful, but we should also see developers building web apps that do things that previously could have only been done by desktop applications. It’s an exciting time to be working on the web, both for the developers of web apps, who have a plethora of new technologies and techniques to experiment with, and for users of those apps.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what developers do with these new tools. What developments are you most looking forward to?

Image credit: Flickr user justinsomnia, licensed under CC 2.0

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